What is anti-sexual harassment training?

Organizations have been conducting anti-sexual harassment training for decades. However, with the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017, conversations about preventing sexual harassment in workplaces have come to the forefront of attention for media and organizations. One Canadian poll found that 43% of women and 12% of men have been subject to sexual harassment at work.[1] Another study discovered that 64% of women and 53% of men believe that sexual harassment happens at their workplace.[2] Today, anti-sexual harassment training is a common method to spread awareness and mitigate this widespread problem. In fact, in the United States, anti-sexual harassment training in workplaces is a USD 10 billion industry[3], and five states legally require employers to provide harassment prevention training to employees.[4] Further, in one survey conducted by the Canadian government in 2017, 43% of survey respondents indicated that they have received training on their workplace’s sexual harassment policy.[5]

The goals of anti-sexual harassment training are to increase awareness and accuracy of recognizing sexual harassment, as well as to educate employees about the organization’s processes for handling complaints (e.g., the procedures for filing a complaint, as well as organizational responses to complaints). It also aims to sensitize employees to the illegality and offensiveness of sexual harassment, and how it is damaging to employees and the workplace. Training comes in all shapes and sizes: it can be experiential, and can include video, games, group discussions or lectures; training times vary vastly in length, and may even involve multiple sessions.[6] Since anti-sexual harassment training is diverse in its methods and delivery, it should not be characterized uniformly. Nevertheless, considering the popularity of training, it remains important to question what its impacts are. Are anti-sexual harassment training programs useful and effective tools for reducing sexual harassment at work?

To debate this question, scholars gathered at the Institute for Gender and the Economy’s Research Roundtable at the Rotman School of Management. In the Oxford-style debate, Professors Ivona Hideg (Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University) and Rachel Ruttan (Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto) argued in favour of the effectiveness of anti-sexual harassment training, while Professors Laura Derksen (University of Toronto, Mississauga) and Heidi Matthews (Osgoode Hall Law School, York University) argued against it. Below is a summary of the insights generated from the debate.

Why anti-sexual harassment training may be effective.

Research suggests that anti-sexual harassment training can be a useful complement to other anti-sexual harassment measures, particularly in providing education and awareness for employees.

  • It increases knowledge about sexual harassment: Often, employees may be uncertain about what counts as sexual harassment. Training can be useful in that it puts everyone on the same page about what constitutes harassment, while also giving people the language and tools to address it. This is especially important in diverse work environments where employees may come from different cultures and backgrounds. Indeed, research shows that sexual harassment training increases the propensity to identify sexually harassing behaviour, particularly for men.[7] In one study, employees who received training were more likely to indicate that unwanted sexual gestures, touching, and pressure for dates are sexual harassment.[8] Recognizing what counts as sexual harassment is an important first step to changing behaviour.
  • It can result in increased reporting and reduced victim blaming: Evidence indicates that the number of sexual harassment complaints at companies increases after training, suggesting that complainants are more willing to come forward.[9] This should not be seen as a sign that the training is not working, but rather that it is creating a more comfortable space for complainants to speak up without the fear that they may be judged negatively. Moreover, research has found that anti-sexual harassment training is associated with decreased victim-blaming beliefs.[10]
  • It may be most effective in mobilizing bystanders: Although many people may think the goals of anti-sexual harassment training are to decrease perpetrators’ behaviours and increase targets’ willingness to report complaints, research shows that anti-sexual harassment training may function most effectively through bystander effects. Bystander intervention training can increase bystander intentions to intervene, confidence about intervening, as well as their actual rates of intervention.[11] [12] Bystander interventions also mitigate victim blaming and circumvent the potential backlash if targets report harassment themselves.[13] Anti-sexual harassment training for bystanders is thus a crucial tool for supporting people who are targeted with harassment.

In one study, employees who received training were more likely to indicate that unwanted sexual gestures, touching, and pressure for dates are sexual harassment. Recognizing what counts as sexual harassment is an important first step to changing behaviour.

  • It can produce feelings of safety for employees: Beyond the benefits of the training content itself, offering anti-sexual harassment training may also have the symbolic effect of signalling to employees that they work in an environment where it is safe to come forward, and that the organization is not tolerant of harassment.[14] This can create feelings of inclusivity for employees, particularly women. While anti-sexual harassment training may not be a perfect preventative measure, not having it may also signal a lack of care about a serious workplace issue.

Why anti-sexual harassment training may not be effective.

While anti-sexual harassment training has its benefits, other evidence suggests it does not stop sexual harassment and may even create undesirable consequences.

  • It ignores structural problems such as power dynamics and discrimination: Anti-sexual harassment training is often done without parallel interventions in the power dynamics and sex- and gender-based discrimination that comes hand-in-hand with sexual harassment.[15] Without any substantial intervention on power and discrimination, training that focuses only on sexual harassment addresses a small part of a bigger problem, and is less likely to be effective. Indeed, some studies have shown that such training is not effective in changing harassing behaviours or reducing incidents of harassment.[16] [17] Moreover, anti-sexual harassment training has even been shown to entrench problematic gender norms. For instance, one study showed that training reinforced traditional and paternalistic gender stereotypes, because it associated men and women with traditional gender roles.[18]
  • It may be more symbolic than real: Researchers have suggested that anti-sexual harassment training is symbolic, rather than a real effort. Although there is little evidence anti-sexual harassment training actually reduces harassment, companies continue to undertake it, often as a box-checking or compliance exercise.[19] This is because anti-sexual harassment training can be an “easy out” to avoid financial or reputational losses, and the company still looks like it is acting in good faith.[20]

For example, it is often overlooked that anti-sexual harassment training programs were developed as litigation defense for companies if or when targets might file claims. In the United States under Equal Employment Opportunity law, anti-sexual harassment practices like training can be used to demonstrate a lack of discrimination in the organization, regardless of the content or quality of the training. That is, companies can avoid litigation simply by showing that they have invested in this preventative measure. As a result, training does not directly address the problem of sexual harassment, nor is there an incentive for it to do so. [21][22][23]

  • It can lead to backlash: Anti-sexual harassment training may lead to backlash, especially from men. For example, after training, men may fear making mistakes and become deterred from working with junior women. In turn, this stops men from establishing working relationships with women that could have benefitted women’s career advancement. Further, one study found that men had a reduced willingness to report sexual harassment after anti-sexual harassment training, which may have been a mechanism of self-preservation in the face of a perceived attack on their gender.[24] Other research has shown that employee training on sexual harassment results in decreased numbers of women managers, possibly due to feelings of group threat and backlash from men.[25]
  • It may give wrong ideas about sexual harassment and violence: Anti-sexual harassment training can be viewed as part of a bureaucratic regulation of sex, which some scholars have argued may be counterproductive to addressing sexual violence and sexual harassment because it also regulates “ordinary sex.” That is, definitions of sexual harassment and consent used in workplaces and other institutions tend to be broader than legal definitions, which may in turn flatten complex issues of desire and sex by suggesting that almost any sexual interaction is impermissible, and therefore punishable. It is possible this occurs at the expense of focusing on what sexual harassment and violence entail. By focusing on sexuality and not on power dynamics, the training could veer in unhelpful directions. Evidence suggests that this may result in the targeting of racial minorities who have been and continue to be stereotyped as overly sexual.[26]

How can organizations conduct anti-sexual harassment training effectively?

The debate suggested that some anti-sexual harassment training can be more effective than others. Although these training programs may not be perfect right now, the debate also shed light on how they may be improved on in the future. Some insights from research include the following:

  • Be immersive and extensive. Like other training programs, effective anti-sexual harassment training should be in-person and involve interactive experiences or group exercises. This will create more long-term impact than individual training based on, for example, reading company policies or watching a video online.[27] [28] Further, training has been found to be more effective if it is at least four hours long, allows for feedback, and is situationally specific to industries, companies and departments.[29]
  • Recognize that discrimination and power dynamics play a role: Training that fails to take into account how sexual harassment is influenced by discrimination and power dynamics will not fully educate employees on harassment. It should be made clear that sexual harassment is an expression of gender-based discrimination and is used as a means to enforce social and workplace power hierarchies.[30] It should also be emphasized that not only women are targets of sexual harassment, and that men and people who do not identify within the gender binary are also affected. The goal of training should thus be to create a safe environment for everyone.
  • Receive leadership support: Those in power can play an important role in setting the tone. If management constantly shows support for, and reinforces, anti-sexual harassment training, they signal that the training’s message matters to them, and that they will hold harassers accountable. Training should suggest that harassment is everyone’s problem, not just the targets’.[31] [32]
  • Include clear goals, follow-up, and measurement: Training should have clear goals and ensure that intended outcomes are well-defined. Further, discussion and self-assessment around the problem of sexual harassment should be frequent and continuous. Organizations can achieve this by having follow-up or “booster” sessions for their anti-sexual harassment training. Over the long-term, companies can keep track of their progress on these milestones and measure incidences of harassment, making note of changes.[33]

What else can organizations do to prevent sexual harassment?

Although anti-sexual harassment training is the most common way to prevent sexual harassment, it is not the only way. Beyond training, the debate suggested that organizations should ensure other processes are in place to prevent sexual harassment and provide support for their employees, such as through the following actions:

  • Create an anti-sexual harassment policy and follow through with it: An anti-sexual harassment policy is important to convey an organization’s commitment to a harassment-free work environment, and the organization’s plans and procedures for handling complaints. It is also crucial that organizations follow through with the policy when complaints arise. This will signal to employees that managers are serious about anti-sexual harassment and will hold harassers accountable.

Further, research shows that anti-sexual harassment training is more effective when there is a higher representation of women managers, and power is more equally distributed amongst men and women.

  • Provide mental and emotional support for employees: Ensuring that targets have access to crucial services, such as trauma counselling and therapy, can help employee wellbeing while also showing that organizations value their employees.
  • Cultivate a more inclusive workplace culture: Workplaces can make their organizational culture more inclusive outside of anti-sexual harassment training. For example, they can train employees on how to be an ally, reward bystander intervention, and show zero-tolerance for any sexist, racist, or otherwise discriminatory behaviour in day-to-day activities.
  • Change power dynamics: Sexual harassment can arise from exploiting power relationships. Hiring and promoting more women can help transform these dynamics by making the hierarchy more balanced. Further, research shows that anti-sexual harassment training is more effective when there is a higher representation of women managers, and power is more equally distributed amongst men and women.[34]

Organizations face a legal, moral and business imperative to prevent sexual harassment of their employees. What is debatable is whether anti-sexual harassment training is the right tool with which to do so. On the one hand, conducting training could be effective in educating employees and helping support targets. On the other hand, it is troubling that anti-sexual harassment training does not address the power dynamics and discrimination that cause sexual harassment in the first place, and can simply be lip service for an organization. This debate highlighted good practices for training programs while also demonstrating potential problems organizations should be aware of as they strive to reduce sexual harassment at work.

__________________________

Research summary prepared by:

Carmina Ravanera, Research Associate and Joyce He, Ph.D. Candidate, Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management, Rotman School of Management, U of T

References

[1] Angus Reid Institute (2014). Three-in-ten Canadians say they’ve been sexually harassed at work, but very few have reported this to their employers. Retrieved on December 4, 2019 from http://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/2014.12.05-Sexual-Harassment-at-work.pdf

[2] Anderson, B. (2017). Sexual harassment of women is widespread in Canada. Abacus Data. Retrieved on December 4, 2019 from https://abacusdata.ca/sexual-harassment-of-women-is-widespread-in-canada/

[3] Roehling, M.V. and Huang, J. (2018). Sexual harassment training effectiveness: An interdisciplinary review and call for research. Journal of Organizational Behaviour 39, 134-150.

[4] Green, J. (14 October, 2019). Sexual harassment training now required for 20 per cent of U.S. workers. Canadian HR Reporter. Retrieved on November 19, 2019 from https://www.hrreporter.com/workplace-law/41292-sexual-harassment-training-now-required-for-20-per-cent-of-us-workers/

[5] Employment and Social Development Canada (2017). Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Workplace: Public Consultations. Retrieved on November 19, 2019 from https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/health-safety/reports/workplace-harassment-sexual-violence.html

[6] Magley, V.J. et al. (2013). Changing Sexual Harassment within Organizations via Training Interventions: Suggestions and Empirical Data. In R.J. Burke and C.L. Cooper (Eds.), The Fulfilling Workplace: The Organization’s Role in Achieving Individual and Organizational Health (pp. 225-246). London, UK: Routledge.

[7] Blakely, G.L. et al. (1998). The Effects of Training on Perceptions of Sexual Harassment Allegations. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 28(1), 71-83.

[8] Antecol, H. and Cobb-clark, D. (2003). Does Sexual Harassment Training Change Attitudes? A View from the Federal Level. Social Science Quarterly 84(4), 826-842.

[9] Magley, V.J. et al. (2013). Changing Sexual Harassment within Organizations via Training Interventions: Suggestions and Empirical Data. In R.J. Burke and C.L. Cooper (Eds.), The Fulfilling Workplace: The Organization’s Role in Achieving Individual and Organizational Health (pp. 225-246). London, UK: Routledge.

[10] Lonsway, K.A. et al. (2008). Sexual Harassment Mythology: Definition, Conceptualization, and Measurement. Sex Roles 58(9-10), 599-615.

[11] Orchowski, L.M. et al. (2018). Evaluations of Sexual Assault Prevention Programs in Military Settings: A Synthesis of the Research Literature. Military Medicine 183, 421-428.

[12] Dobbin, F. and Kalev, A. (2019). The promise and peril of sexual harassment programs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(25), 12255-12260.

[13] Hart, C.G. (2019). The Penalties For Self-Reporting Sexual Harassment. Gender & Society 33(4), 534-559.

[14] Brown, K. G., & Sitzmann, T. (2011). Training and employee development for improved performance. In Z. Sheldon (Ed.), APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Selecting and developing members for

the organization (Vol. 2) (pp. 469–503). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

[15] Pina, A., Gannon, T. A., and Saunders, B. (2009). An overview of the literature on sexual harassment: Perpetrator, theory, and treatment issues. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 126-138.

[16] Magley, V.J. et al. (2013). Changing Sexual Harassment within Organizations via Training Interventions: Suggestions and Empirical Data. In R.J. Burke and C.L. Cooper (Eds.), The Fulfilling Workplace: The Organization’s Role in Achieving Individual and Organizational Health (pp. 225-246). London, UK: Routledge.

[17] Roehling, M.V. and Huang, J. (2018). Sexual harassment training effectiveness: An interdisciplinary review and call for research. Journal of Organizational Behaviour 39, 134-150.

[18] Tinkler, J., Gremillion, S. and Arthurs, K. (2015). Perceptions of Legitimacy: The Sex of the Legal Messenger and Reactions to Sexual Harassment Training. Law & Social Inquiry 40(1), 152-174.

[19] Grossman, J.L. (2003). The Culture of Compliance: The Final Triumph of Form Over Substance in Sexual Harassment Law. Harvard Women’s Law Journal 26, 3-75.

[20] Bisom-Rapp, S. (2018-2019). Sex Harassment Training Must Change: The Case for Legal Incentives for Transformative Education and Prevention. Stanford Law Review Online, 71, 60-73.

[21] Edelman, L.B. (2016). Working Law: Courts, Corporations, and Symbolic Civil Rights. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[22] Tippett, E.C. (2018). Harassment Trainings: A Content Analysis. Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labour Law 39, 481-526.

[23] Krieger, L.H., Best, R.K. and Edelman, L.B. (2015). When “Best Practices” Win, Employees Lose: Symbolic Compliance and Judicial Inference in Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Cases. Law & Social Inquiry 40(4), 843-879.

[24] Bingham, S.G. and Scherer, L.L. (2001). The Unexpected Effects of a Sexual Harassment Educational Program. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 37 (2), 125-153.

[25] Dobbin, F. and Kalev, A. (2019). The promise and peril of sexual harassment programs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(25), 12255-12260.

[26] Gerson, J. and Suk, J. (2016). The Sex Bureaucracy. California Law Review 104(4), 881-948.

[27] Potter, S.J. et al. (2016). Conveying campus sexual misconduct policy information to college and university students: Results from a 7-campus study. Journal of American College Health 64(6), 438-447.

[28] Perry, E. L., Kulik, C. T., & Schmidtke, J. M. (1998). Individual differences in the effectiveness of

sexual harassment awareness training. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28, 698–723.

[29] Kalinoski, Z.T., et al. (2012). A meta-analytic evaluation of diversity training outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behavior 34(8), 1076-1104.

[30] Pina, A., Gannon, T. A., & Saunders, B. (2009). An overview of the literature on sexual harassment: Perpetrator, theory, and treatment issues. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 126-138.

[31] Dobbin, F. and Kalev, A. (2019). The promise and peril of sexual harassment programs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(25), 12255-12260.

[32] Buchanan, N.T. et al. (2014). A Review of Organizational Strategies for Reducing Sexual Harassment: Insights from the U.S. Military. Journal of Social Issues 70(4), 687-702.

[33] Buchanan, N.T. et al. (2014). A Review of Organizational Strategies for Reducing Sexual Harassment: Insights from the U.S. Military. Journal of Social Issues 70(4), 687-702.

[34] Dobbin, F. and Kalev, A. (2019). The promise and peril of sexual harassment programs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(25), 12255-12260.

See more research overviews

Research summary prepared by

Carmina Ravanera, Research Associate and Joyce He, Ph.D. Candidate, Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management, Rotman School of Management, U of T

Published

November 27, 2019

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